When I left Siem Reap I was deciding between 2 options: 1) Go south to Koh Rong, an island that was highly recommended by more than one backpacker friend, and Ben’s next stop; 2) Take a river ride to Battambang, a town between Siem Reap and the border of Thailand that was known for its French Colonial architecture and nearby temples, and my original plan.
This was a tough one because Koh Rong was such a tempting option since it was supposedly a chill, beautiful backpacker haven, and I had a friend to go with. In the end though I had to go with Battambang. I have already said how I prefer mountains to beaches, and knowing that I had a few weeks of beaches coming up in Thailand and Indonesia I needed one last inland fix. Plus the Lonely Planet description called to me:
“There’s something about Battambang that visitors just love… The colonial architecture, the riverside setting, the laid-back cafes… It’s the perfect blend of relatively urban modernity and small-town friendliness. Outside the city’s confines, meanwhile, timeless hilltop temples and bucolic villages await.”
That sounded like my kind of town. And the way I chose to get there was an adventure in itself: Cambodia’s most scenic boat journey.
I woke up when it was still dark out and was picked up by a van that fit more people than should be allowed, but that didn’t stop me from sleeping the whole ride to the boat (I had gotten about an hour of sleep after the near-robbery). We made it to the dock shortly after dawn. I don’t know why I was expecting it to run smoothly, this is local transportation in Cambodia after all. We were loaded onto a smallish wooden boat that has clearly made this trip thousands of times and there we sat for an hour. How I managed to sleep sitting on that wooden bench I will never know. Finally it was time to go, so we pushed off from the boat next to us and puttered out into the wide river.
It was cold. The first time I felt cold in Cambodia. I was in and out of consciousness, recognizing that we were on a river but not yet seeing why it was such a recommended ride. Then the boat slowed down and we approached a floating village. The village on Tonle Sap lake is well-known throughout Cambodia; it’s advertised in travel guides as a must-do trip from Siem Reap, and it’s a pretty impressive place. Houses and markets are built simply, out of wood and plants, on flotation devices that bob with the current. Small motorboats are the only means of transport.
This being Cambodia – safety third – I climbed out from my seat to stand along the few inches of wood on the side of the boat. I noticed all the people sitting on the roof of our boat for the first time. I hung on with one hand and took pictures with the other, waving to kids as we passed. A boat approached ours and a few people and some supplies were transferred between boats as we drifted downstream.
Throughout the boat ride we saw smaller versions of this floating village, including one where we stopped for snacks and refreshments. I got a cold can of coke and finally felt awake. I sat on the front of the boat for a while until we reached the tricky part of the journey. For the next couple of hours we wound around tight turns, using a combination of the motor and a huge paddle to navigate the snakelike river. We passed houses that were no longer floating but were made out of old boats sitting on the riverbank. I wondered how people live in them. Every turn had a giant fishing apparatus in the water; it worked like scale, with a large circular net submerged on one side of a pole, and a rope on the other side that could be pulled down to raise the net. I assumed that fishing and some farming were how people here survived.
It took 9 hours to reach Battambang. Admittedly I was in and out of sleep for the first 4 or 5, but once I reached shore I was happy to have experienced the ride. I was able to see a different side of Cambodia, where life revolves in, around, and on the river. It was a quiet life, and it didn’t look like an easy life, but that didn’t stop the kids from flashing us big smiles and enthusiastically waving as we passed. I couldn’t help but wave back to every single one of them. I wasn’t alone in doing this, most of the boat must have waved at nearly a hundred children. Something about kids running on shore waving at you as your boat glides by just makes you smile. I smiled a lot that day.